Dieter Petereit June 13th, 2018

Web Design: User Personas Define Your Target Audience

The "user" is a far too abstract description of the people that might want to use your new web project. You can neither orient nor optimize your project towards a description that abstract. You need something better, like Frank, the hasty single father, or Maria, the stressed-out accountant. User personas allow for this exact concretization.

It All Begins With the User

When I started programming applications in 1987, my team and I had a lot of discussions on the user. He or she was supposed to be able to use our software in the end. We didn't always talk about this fictional character with much respect, as, even back then, we knew that the primary source of errors regarding computers sits about 30 inches (more like 50 inches today) in front of the screen. When speaking of the user, we mostly talked about having to teach him to avoid making errors, and how we could show him the ropes of the software. The user was a problem that our software needed to deal with intelligently. When thinking about the abilities the software should have, and how they should be used, we always took ourselves as the starting point. Here, the user was not as important. After all, we were the experts and knew a lot more than all the people out there. This way, the developer life worked rather well for a while. [caption id="attachment_104527" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Everything that mattered. Back when rubber boots were made of wood. (Illustration: Pixabay)[/caption] Even when we discovered the web as a new development target, we didn't see a reason to revise our idea of the user. The only change was that we now received commissions for web presences directly by the inexperienced people themselves. We also benefitted from the fact that there was a lack of providers of this kind of service. Those were real gold digger days. The user only gained importance towards the end of the nineties. Since then, the significance of this fictional person increased continuously, and he has even become the primary success factor of modern apps. There are few things more important than the user experience. This mainly goes for situations where one and the same problem has at least a dozen of different solutions. This is where users no longer set themselves apart from the rest via application purpose, but via the unique solution approach. The winner is the one with the easiest app. Even small things, like microinteractions, can be of extreme importance. The user is no longer the problem or even the skid of development. Instead, the user has recently turned into the target.

User Personas Are Almost as Old as the Web Itself

I'll claim that, in the early years of development for the masses, most developers had the same mindset that I have sketched above. Large software houses might have been a different story. However, I was able to work for larger houses back then, though, and can not claim to have gotten a different impression there. In the mid-nineties, the software engineer Alan Cooper developed the concept of user personas, and published it in 1999, in his book "The Inmates are Running the Asylum." Independently from Cooper, the Ogilvy employee Angus Jenkinson implemented vital elements of the development of user personas in a project for Vodafone, one year before Cooper. [caption id="attachment_104524" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] The typical marketing manager? Maybe… (Photo: Pixabay)[/caption] This was about altering the orientation of the CRM so that it made working with the system much easier for the marketing manager. Jenkinson came up with the persona of the typical marketing managers, providing a detailed description of the manager's workday with the new system. Especially Cooper's book release resulted in the term quickly gaining popularity, allowing it to establish itself in areas other than application development as well. The concept is also widely spread in marketing. Here, buyer personas are created with much attention to detail.

So, What is a Persona?

Briefly said, a persona is what we used to call user. A user persona is a fictional archetype of a typical user of the website or app that you want to create. [caption id="attachment_104525" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] User Persona: the casually active, elegant coffee drinker with a mobile workplace. (Photo: Pexels)[/caption] Before creating an app, it is necessary to define the product's potential user. Which user groups seem plausible, and how will the want to use the app?

The Advantages of Using User Personas

When creating a persona, the goal is to describe the potential user as detailed as possible. This gives you a personified user, representing a clear-cut user group, which you can almost think of as a collocutor, that can help you as follows:
  • The psychological advantage of a specific definition is that it is straightforward for the developer to identify with the respective persona. This allows them to almost feel their wishes, needs, and requirements and set out to fulfill them in a target-oriented fashion. The developer can look at the project through the eyes of the persona.
  • A specific definition allows for a particular focus. Once a requirement profile was found, it is easier to work on it. If there are multiple personas, they need to be prioritized and dealt with individually. It wouldn't be smart to mix all demand profiles and lose the differentiation in the process. It is impossible to design for everyone, just as much as it is impossible to be everyone's darling. Cooper speaks of the "elastic user" in this case, which doesn't exist.
  • The persona definition introduces the user to the project participants that were not involved in the goal definition.
  • Orientation decisions in the design process become easier once a clear user definition has been established.
  • Last but not least, a good user persona also makes it possible for a team member to assume said position, and use the app or design project as the actual person probably would've used it. This is an easy way to conduct user tests without real users.
[caption id="attachment_104526" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] If this is your user persona, you definitely have a sophisticated project. (Source: Pixabay)[/caption]

How do I Create a Persona?

The creation of a user persona can be compared to the process of target group definition in marketing. The following questions, which should be familiar to business administrators, help you with that:
  • Who's the ideal user?
  • Which problems are these users faced with, and how do they solve them?
  • Which goals and needs are important to these users?
  • Are there critical demographic factors to consider? (A few examples: are the users working mothers with low income, or are they typically child-free top earners? Are they employed or independent? Do they work alone or in a team?)
  • What motives the users to use your product? What should your product be capable of?
  • When and where do users use your product? (On the sofa in the evening, because it's an entertainment app, or under time pressure in the city because it's a taxi app? Both scenarios suggest different designs.)
[caption id="attachment_104528" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] The profile of working moms will be very different from other profiles. (Source: Pexels)[/caption] At the end of the process, you have a very clear idea of the potential user, the user persona. This idea is now broken down to a specific character, as you give your persona a name, and a function label, like "Maria, the stressed accountant", and document the resulting realizations. Each user persona receives some kind of profile, making sure you don't lose focus. The gained knowledge about the users can now be applied in all project stages, from prototyping to the finished product, as a golden thread in your development. Sources for More Information: (The article was initially written in the German language for our sister magazine Dr. Web Magazin and has been translated to enlighten our English language community here at Noupe.) Featured image by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels

Dieter Petereit

Dieter Petereit is a veteran of the web with over 25 years of experience in the world of IT. As soon as Netscape became available he started to do what already at that time was called web design and has carried on ever since. Two decades ago he started writing for several online publications, some well, some lesser known. You can meet him over on Google+.

One comment

  1. Everything starts with personas and that is true for every digital campaign you want to start, including SEO. You need to know to whom you are addressing your content too and you need to know everything about that demographic.

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